Throwback Thursday: Inside the quiz show scandals of the 1950s

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The 1950s hit NBC quiz show “Twenty-One” was canceled without warning or explanation after its broadcast on Oct. 17, 1958. The show and others like it, such as NBC’s “The Big Surprise” and CBS’s “The $64,000 Question” and “Dotto,” were huge hits with viewers still in awe of television, a then-recent invention.

In fact, by the end of the 1957-58 TV season, there were some 22 network quiz shows. On NBC alone, game shows accounted for 18 percent of all programming.

Riveting … and rigged

The shows were popular, but only if the champions were attractive and likeable. To boost ratings and to make sponsors happy, producers manufactured ties between contestants to build suspense, fed answers to those they wanted to win and even coached contestants in theatrics, like how to dramatically wipe their worried brows. Some producers even accepted bribes from those desperate to get on the shows.

Twenty-one and counting

One of the most notorious game show scandals occurred on a program called “Twenty-One.” For one hugely popular segment, producers tapped working-class everyman Herb Stempel to be a contestant on the show and coached him to victory. They told him how to cut his hair, what rumpled suit to wear, when to answer correctly and even when to falter. Stempel was the reigning champion until sponsors deemed him too untelegenic. They wanted someone younger, more vibrant and attractive.

And so the producers brought in Charles Van Doren, a smart, good-looking Columbia University professor. Van Doren joined Stempel in the deceit, eventually unreining him as champ. Starting in late 1956, Van Doren won some $138,000 over the course of several months and rocketed himself to fame, landing the cover of Time magazine and becoming a cultural correspondent on the “Today” show.

On a losing streak

In August 1958, however, things unraveled. Several disgruntled “losers” of various shows started rumbling, and by October 1958, the suspected quiz shows were abruptly canceled and investigated.

In November 1959, Van Doren appeared along with several other game show contestants before the House Special Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight and confessed to deceit. “I was involved, deeply involved, in a deception,” he said. “I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them.”

The aftermath

While no contestant or producer went to jail for game show rigging — there were no laws against it at the time — some were prosecuted for obstructing justice and committing perjury.

Van Doren, for his part, resigned from Columbia and was fired from the “Today” show. By 1960 all the high-stakes shows were off the air and then President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into legislation an amendment to the Communications Act of 1934, making it a federal crime to rig a game or quiz show.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons